Wednesday, October 24, 2007


Two ACLU lawyers have written a book called Administration of Torture, which purportedly draws on more than 100,000 pages of recently-released government documents (obtained by the authors after several years' worth of Freedom of Information Act requests) to paint a rather damning picture of the Bush Administration's attitude toward the use of "torture" techniques in the so-called War on Terror.

Meanwhile, American law enforcement and espionage agencies have been exercising their USA PATRIOT ACT-expanded powers to conduct what would have been anathema in ages past: spying on U.S. citizens through warrantless wiretapping and Internet monitoring -- all in the name of preventing terrorism.

These are two examples of ongoing arguments that no one will ever win.

Here's the problem: both sides on both arguments are utterly convinced of the validity of their own understanding of the issue. And neither side in either argument understands either issue in the same terms as their opponents.

I'll try to explain that a little better by using the first example. I haven't read Administration of Torture yet, but Americans have been discussing the issue of our use of "high-stress interrogation techniques" since the first photos from Abu Ghraib hit the press. Officially, the U.S. has repeatedly stated that it does not engage in torture -- but was very careful later when actually defining what constituted as torture.

Those who wish to take "a hard line" on terrorism usually are perfectly happy to allow the government to use whatever means necessary to extract information from a prisoner in the interest of preventing a terrorist attack. Few will admit to endorsing "torture," per se, but will dismiss specific techniques (such as "waterboarding" and "stress positions") as not amounting to actual torture. Furthermore, if we need to torture a few Afghans or Iraqis in order to save thousands of American lives, well, isn't that worth it?

But then there are those who (like me) believe that any kind of torture violates the very principle that supposedly gives the United States the moral high ground (or what's left of it) in fighting terrorism -- that America, as a nation, should act in a way that demonstrates a respect for human rights (that's human rights, not American citizens' rights, by the way). Torturing prisoners for any reason is morally abhorrent -- the ends do not justify the means.

On the second issue, I had an argument with my dad this evening over PATRIOT ACT wiretapping, and I discovered that we will never find a common ground on the issue, because we understand the rights of the individual versus the authority of government in fundamentally different ways. Dad thinks that citizens who live law-abiding lives have nothing to worry about, and that the trouble of securing warrants for domestic wiretapping allows critical communications between potential terrorists to go unheard.

On the other hand, I believe that it's more important for our Fourth Amendment rights (which guarantees freedom from unwarranted search and seizure) to be protected than to unleash our law enforcement agencies on the general public in order to chase down leads on terrorism unimpeded by silly "checks" and "balances." I think this is particularly important in a country that bills itself as "Home of the Free" while "exporting democracy" to other nations.

In other words, Dad is more comfortable trusting the government than I am (except, notably, in the case of health care), and I am more attached to my Constitutionally-guaranteed freedoms than he is to his.

These concepts are absolute data for every argument that anyone's ever had regarding the war in Iraq and terrorism -- and you will never reach any kind of resolution to any discussion you have with someone who doesn't already agree with you on absolute data.